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The Civil War Battle of Ball’s Bluff
“I want a sudden, bold, forward, decisive war,” Senator Edward D. Baker’s reaction to Fort Sumter, as announced to the Senate. Baker was a unique individual and would play a key role in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff.
When Edward D. Baker was four years old, his family moved from England to Philadelphia. Baker later lived in Illinois where he was admitted to the bar in 1830. In 1835, he entered local Illinois politics and along the way met Abraham Lincoln. In 1837 Baker was elected to the United States Congress and in 1840 to the United States Senate. Edward D. Baker defeated Abraham Lincoln in 1844 for a seat in the United States Congress and was elected. Despite this, Lincoln and Baker were good friends and later Lincoln named his second son (Edward Baker Lincoln) after him.
Baker was a veteran of the Black Hawk War of 1832 and the Mexican War, where he served as colonel of the 4th Illinois Volunteers. He then moved to Galena, Illinois, to run for the United States Congress, thus avoiding a race against his friend from Springfield, Abraham Lincoln (whom he had previously defeated). Baker was elected. Baker failed to receive a cabinet appointment from President Franklin Pierce in 1852, so he moved west to follow the California gold rush and was admitted to the California bar. In 1860, Baker was on the move again, this time to Oregon, and following his tradition of political success, he was elected to the United States Senate. At Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration, Edward D. Baker rode in the president’s carriage and introduced Lincoln before his inaugural address.
In May 1861, Baker’s star was again on the rise as the Civil War heated up. The Secretary of War authorized him to raise an infantry regiment to count as part of the California quota. Baker raised the 71st Pennsylvania Infantry (also known as the 1st California), mostly recruiting troops from Philadelphia, and served as the regiment’s colonel. Just a few months later, Baker was given command of a brigade in General Charles P. Stone’s division. Baker’s job as brigade commander was to guard the fords of the Potomac River north of Washington.
In the fall of 1861, Edward D. Baker was now fifty years old, handsome, bald, a close personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln, and a staunch supporter of the Union. He was also a senator from Oregon and a colonel in the army. Having distinguished himself at many levels of law and politics, further achievements clearly awaited him as an officer in the Civil War.
He was a man who loved to recite poetry, always on the move, larger than life, and soon Baker would have the opportunity to “promote a sudden, bold, forward, decisive war.” With the Civil War now underway, may God bless and protect all Confederates who cross Colonel Edward D. Baker’s path.
Along the Potomac River about 35 miles northwest of Washington, DC, and northeast of Leesburg, Virginia, Ball’s Bluff is a 100-foot-tall bluff that rises above the Potomac on the Virginia coast. It has a 50-yard deep floodplain from the river, and the bluff itself is about 600 yards wide. The steep, wooded bluff bank has a 10- to 12-foot-wide cow or wagon trail that winds from the bank to the top.
At Ball’s Bluff, about half way across the Virginia shore of the Potomac River, is Harrison’s Island, the water running fast through this narrow channel. From Harrison’s Island across the Potomac to the Maryland coast, the channel is wider and shallower.
After First Bull Run, the Confederates were firmly entrenched in northeastern Virginia and controlled much of it. In October, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston assembled most of the troops at Centerville. There were still some rebel troops around Leesburg, north of Centerville, but there were rumors (a black deserter from the 13th Mississippi said that the Confederates at Leesburg had taken supplies back to Manassas in preparation for the retreat) that Johnston was withdrawing his men from Leesburg back.
Union General George B. McClellan thought it might be worth seeing how sincere Johnston was about keeping troops at Leesburg. At Langley (on the Virginia side of the Potomac) was a division of the Pennsylvania Reserve, numbering 13,000 soldiers, and commanded by George McCall. On October 19, McClellan sent McCall to Dranesville (about halfway between Leesburg and Washington, DC), thinking that this advance of Yankee troops might help encourage Joe Johnston to move his troops out of Leesburg.
Against McClellan’s wishes, Confederate commander Nathan “Shanks” Evans took up a defensive position west of Dranesville rather than withdraw. To complicate matters, on the morning of October 20 McClellan received an incorrect message stating that the Confederates had responded to McCall’s movement by retreating. Shanks Evan’s defensive actions west of Dranesville were misinterpreted as a retreat.
McClellan wanted to be sure of a Confederate retreat, so he sent an order containing the following words to General Charles Stone on the Maryland side of the Potomac: “Keep a close watch on Leesburg, to see if this movement will affect them far. Perhaps a little demonstration on your part would sides had the effect of moving them.”
General Stone interpreted McClellan’s orders liberally and proceeded to cross one or two regiments at Edward’s Ferry below Ball’s Bluff, and sent other troops three miles up the Maryland side of the Potomac to cross into Virginia at Harrison’s Island. Stone thought he could put some pressure on the Confederates and induce them to retreat from Leesburg. Learn more History of the Civil War…
Stone’s men marching toward the crossing at Harrison’s Island were the 20th Massachusetts. It was a night march and by midnight they found themselves crossing the Maryland shore. This crossing was difficult because they only had three small boats that could only carry a total of 25 people at a time. There was a lot of standing and waiting, and confusion, for those waiting to cross and those who had crossed. At dawn on October 21, the entire 20th Massachusetts found itself on Harrison’s Island overlooking the remaining 150-yard river crossing to the Virginia coast. There was a high and wooded bluff, Ball’s Bluff was its name. They also learned that the previous evening, the 15th Massachusetts had succeeded in transporting five companies to the coast of Virginia. Those people were up on the cliff now… and something worse was happening.
That morning the 20th Massachusetts crossed from Harrison’s Island and ascended Ball’s Bluff by a winding cow or wagon road. At the top, they found themselves in a glade of open terrain, without much going on. Earlier that dawn, Colonel Charles Devon of the 15th Massachusetts had led some troops almost all the way to Leesburg, west of Ball’s Bluff. Devon ran into some Confederate outposts during his march and several shots were fired. Devon is now back in the glade.
The allies were somewhere in the woods beyond the glade, on higher ground, and there were some stakes that were shooting. No one knew exactly where the Rebels were, or how many there might be. Colonel Devon sent word to General Stone, informing him of what he knew. Stone sent word telling Devon to wait for Colonel Edward D. Baker, who would soon arrive with more troops, and take charge.
After some delay, Colonel Baker arrived at Ball’s Bluff and took command, ready to satisfy his desire; “sudden, bold, forward, decisive war.” Lincoln’s close friend was now in charge, ready to move (remember, Baker was a man on the move) against the Confederates. One can only imagine how much Baker, a successful lawyer and politician, longed for this moment. He was known to occasionally recite poetry, and once on a battlefield said to a friend “Press where you see my white feathers shining amid the battle lines.”
When Baker assumed command, he said to Colonel Devon, “I congratulate you, sir, on your prospect of battle,” and to the soldiers nearby he asked, “Boys, you want to fight, don’t you?” The boys responded positively. The fight was on.
Rebel fire became more frequent, and the Johnny Rebs were concentrated in increasing numbers further into the woods, on the heights. Baker got some rifles on the cliff and they started shelling the woods from which the rebel snipers were coming. The 20th Massachusetts returned fire and the men were hit, falling. The boys were green and new to all this, the idea that the enemy was shooting at them, and with precision. The boys felt the nerves as they saw the elephant first hand, this was no drill, blood flowed and lives ended.
Baker returned to the edge of the bluff and saw the New York regiment, which was called the Tammany regiment, making its way up the path. With the arrival of the Tammany men, there would be a total of four Union regiments at Ball’s Bluff. Colonel Baker felt more and more confident. Seeing the colonel of the Tammany regiment, Milton Cogswell, approaching the top of the bluff, Baker waved and greeted the colonel with a line from Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake”; “One blast of your trumpet is worth a thousand men.”
Now, Colonel Milton Cogswell was not a lawyer-politician-officer, no sir, Cogswell was a true professional West Point soldier and he saw the situation at the top of the bluff differently from Colonel Edward D. Baker. To Cogswell’s trained military eye, things looked bad, very bad. The Confederates held high ground in the woods, brush, and timber, and picked off Union men at will, just like turkeys. Cogswell knew that the Confederates were preparing to attack. The Union boys were backed up to a steep cliff, below which was an impassable river. To add to the trouble Cogswell saw, soon one of the cannons backed over the sheer cliff. Because of this, the Union guys were left without a big gun, because the rebels had already silenced the others with sniper fire.
Colonel Baker may have been a lawyer-politician colonel, but he was no idiot. Baker immediately understood the dire circumstances. He moved along the Union line urging the boys to stand firm. Perhaps Baker realized that if they retreated down the cliff, with only three small boats, it would take hours to get them all across the river. It was better to stay and fight. Certainly, Baker had to have a plan in mind to succeed and save the day for the Union boys. We’ll never know.
A rebel sharpshooter (perhaps one who doesn’t like poetry) drew a seed on Colonel Edward D. Baker’s pumpkin and killed him instantly with a bullet through the brain.
The Union boys lost their poetry quoting the lawyer-politician-turned-colonel. Baker’s body would now be on the move down the bluff. Things began to erode into a complete mess. After all, how can you fight a battle on a cliff, where you’re sitting ducks, without reciting poetry?
Attempts were made to resist and maneuver, but as dusk set in, the day was lost for the Union. While the rebels from Mississippi and Virginia fired on the huddled band of Yankees, the men scrambled over the cliff as fast as they could. The Union boys tumbled over the cliff and in their haste to escape, fell painfully on the bayonets and heads of others who were making their way down the cliff. In places, the side cliffs were worn down to the ground and smoothed over with people and bodies. After descending to the narrow bank, more horror awaited him.
Two boats full of wounded soldiers (the wounded had been brought down the cliff all day for evacuation) were trying to make their way to Harrison’s Island. These boats were overrun by panicked people who jumped into them in a hurry to save their own skins. The bullets of the rebels fired from the cliff turned the water; “white as in a great hailstorm” as one man described it. Many of the wounded in the waterlogged boats could not help themselves, they drowned and were carried downstream. The remaining tin boat soon sank after being full of holes, now there were no more boats.
Night fell with bright, crimson muzzle flashes continuing from above. Some of the Union boys surrendered, some stripped off and swam to safety, others found neck-deep water and reached Harrison’s Island. Ultimately, more than 200 Union members were killed or wounded, and over 700 were captured. Confederate losses were minimal.
Ball’s Bluff was a disaster for the Union. A day that had once been laced with poetry was now more suitable as a subject for lamentation.
Back in Washington, Abraham Lincoln would now be mourning the loss of the Union and the death of a close friend.
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